Standing behind the mike with my fiddle in hand, I’ve watched singer John Ferguson with charm and wit entertain an audience, bursting with Irish pride, whether raising a pint while toasting Irish independence before singing “A Nation Once Again” or walking among the audience, microphone in hand, singing and shaking hands with listeners, many his friends from years playing the Akron Irish scene and haunting the Hibernian Club, an enclave of Irish-Catholic culture.
Ferguson’s band, Fergie and the Bog Dogs, based in Akron, connects with the audience through humor, sentiments of home and hearth, rebellion against English rule, a bit o’ blarney, and that enduring love of homeland that thrives in the hearts of grandchildren of Irish immigrants who have never themselves seen Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore.
John is a member of the Mark Heffernan Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, its home on Brown Street on Akron’s south side. The national AOH was founded in 1836, and Akron has two divisions, the Heffernan and the St. Brendan Division, which hosts the Riverfront Irish Festival in Cuyahoga Falls, a large gathering where Ferguson and many more groups perform. The Irish in America have come a long way from the days when businesses hung signs proclaiming “No Irish need apply,” and the sons and daughters of Erin are immensely proud of their Gaelic roots, preserving the culture of their homeland through AOH gatherings and through festivals that welcome you people not lucky enough to be born with the blood of Brian Boru coursing through your veins.
The Hibernian clubs in Akron are just two of many Irish enclaves in Ohio. People of Irish descent gather at the West Side Irish-American Club in Olmsted Township east of Cleveland, where musicians perform every week, lessons in Irish are offered and members can conduct research in the library. A stalwart of the club was the late Tom McCaffrey, a fiddler who was born in Ireland and lived on Cleveland’s west side, an Irish stronghold, dying in 2006 at age 90. I saw Tom perform in the 1990s and interviewed him long ago for a folk music newsletter, and he was equally musician and storyteller, honored upon his death by the U.S. House of Representatives for his “charm, wit and Irish wisdom,” as noted by Dennis Kucinich. I still use one of his comic poems at times when I perform.
I have also participated in Irish culture to the east. In the 1990s I played at the Warren Celtic Heritage Fair, now defunct, and the book “Irish in Youngstown and the Greater Mahoning Valley,” produced in 2004 by The Irish American Archival Society and published by Arcadia Publishing, shows photos of Youngstown’s Gathering of the Clans, a summer festival that I think is also defunct. Youngstown has its St. Patrick’s Day parade, and alive and well is the Irish music session organized by my friend Frank, who bears a Polish surname and is most definitely not Irish but who loves the music of Erin as deeply as do those of us with Irish ancestry. Quinlan’s Irish Pub in Niles hosts the third-Sunday sessions, and one February I sat against the wall, squeezed between fiddler Frank and whistle player Jean, while to Frank’s left was accordion player Brett, and farther round the bend were more fiddlers, guitarists, and a hammer dulcimer player. I accompanied my playing with tall glasses of Smithwick’s, a medium-brown Irish ale brewed by Guinness of Dublin, pronounced “smittick’s” by our server, and I enjoyed the photos of Ireland and other Celtic-theme items that decorate the pub.
To the north, Hiram College musicians host an annual Irish music session. This year’s will be held at 3 p.m. March 30 in Frohring Recital Hall, and Claddagh Irish Pub in Columbus’ German Village (https://www.claddaghirishpubs.com/) holds weekly Sunday sessions. Ohio is home to two exuberantly large Irish festivals, the Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival, held in July at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds in Berea, and the Dublin Irish Festival. Both draw international talent.